Let’s Have a Ball: The Realness of Performativity in Drag

Molly Martindale and Saylor Hinthorn

Paris Is Burning

Drag is the dramatic performance of the alternate gender than what a person identifies as normally usually for performance purposes. Traditionally, drag has been performed by men who dress femininely and are referred to as drag queens. Drag makeup accentuates the features that are commonly associated with femininity like less dramatic jaw lines, large eyelids and eyelashes, and small noses. The drag community has constantly been scrutinized by society because the practice has been considered “not natural”. In the mid to late 1980s the drag community had come together to form houses with families of queer men who supported each other’s art and culture. In the documentary, Paris is Burning (1990) exemplifies the power and emotion behind the categories within the ball as well as places itself as a cornerstone for the future of drag in media.

What is Ball Culture?

The Guardian

The documentary Paris is Burning (1990) directed by Jennie Livingston shined light upon the lives of those who participate in the ball culture in New York City. The documentary encapsulated what happens behind the doors of the Houses. The Ball is a competition where contestants must walk in a specific category, or vogueing. The documentary shows the audience the importance of drag as well as how it is important for the contestants. Livingston shows us that the contestants really are part of The Family. They found comfort in a place where they could dress and act exactly how they wanted. Behind the doors of the ball, one finds a mix of races and sexual identities. Michelle Parkerson writes that “The film emerges as something far beyond sensational anthropology. It is, ultimately, an up-front, humane chronicle of overcoming adversity with audacity” (Parkerson, 2020).

Before RuPaul

The documentary represents the importance of understanding intersectionality. The documentary not only explains the ball, but delves into the lives of queer, African American, Latino, and transgenders and the hate and discrimination they faced from not only the public, but as well as their families. The film explains the meaning of the different Houses that host the balls and the roles that the contestants play. For some, these roles include not only the label as the “Mother” of the house, but emotionally as well. The mother becomes the backbone for the new contestants seeking out emotional support as well as finding their place within society. 

The Categories

Billy Porter

The ball runs in the same way as a pageant. There are specific categories. The Categories are created based on various themes, skills, and techniques. Some are open to all performers to compete in, depending on the type of ball. (Kiki balls are known to sometimes have open categories (Staff, 2019). There is a host (represented above) who reads off the categories to the audience.  The categories can be very basic, but can also become more complex. In Paris is Burning, there is no structure to the announcement of the categories. People are allowed to chime in to what the expectation is for the category. Some categories have a competitive dance that is called “voguing.” This competition is a dance where they pose in various poses that imitate those found in the magazine. The categories can include topics such as Royalty, Butch Queen, and Runway. The categories are a visual representation of gender performativity because the contestants mimic who they believe to represent that category. Judith Butler, the woman who coined the term “gender performativity” believes that gender in itself is a performance.

Interview

When understanding the ball, one has to know that the categories are not just extreme makeup and dresses but also includes the normal everyday life. This photo of a man dressed as a CEO/ Executive explains the discrimination felt by the contestants. They dress as roles or jobs they believe they never will be. The documentary was filmed from the mid to late 1980s. That was only 20 years after the Civil Rights Movement and people of mixed or different races were still heavily discriminated against. The War on Drugs had become even more relevant with President Reagan declaring that illicit drugs became a threat to National Security. The War on Drugs was a way for police to discriminate against people of different races. When one thinks about the Houses hosting the balls for contestants, it really was one of the safest places one could go and dress exactly as they wanted to be without fear of oppression from those who were different. The ball was a safe haven from hate.

Ball Culture Today

Cosmopolitan Cover

Paris is Burning was one of the first open representations of drag in television. Today, ball culture and drag has become more widely accepted because of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Dragula, POSE, Trixie & Katya, etc. Like Paris is Burning, these shows represent drag in a positive light and have transformed ball culture into a more mainstream and capitalized event. RuPaul’s Drag Race is a great representation of how ball culture is practiced today. The show reflects how traditional drag balls were held with different categories each episode in combination with lip syncing, dancing, and comedy. However, “[d]rag is not simply a comedy trope, it has serious implications in the LGBT+ community. It is not only a way to earn a living for some, but a mean to express gender identity and political activism for others” (Ducros, 2017). Television shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race opens the LGBT+ community up to the mainstream and makes performativity in general, more accepted.

POSE

POSE is another, more direct, reflection of the documentary Paris is Burning and its popularity has contributed to helping people understand what drag culture is. It provides an open representation of the struggles that the LGBT+ community faces without hesitation and offers the audience a platform to further their acceptance of gender performativity. The episode, In My Heels (Season 2, Episode 10), even expresses how there are gender separations within the queer community and some internal ambiguity. Pray Tell and the other more masculine men are faced with the challenge of going into drag, and this helps them understand the amount of hard work that goes into the art of drag. Originally, they had not understood the struggle and thought that being feminine was an easy task. This internal ambiguity shows the audience that there is even misunderstanding within the LGBT+ community and there is always room to learn. POSE directs the audience in the direction of understanding how gender performativity does not define who someone is as a person but is simply a part of their identity. 

Does Drag Appropriate Femininity?

Stereotype of Drag

At the surface, it may appear that drag is an appropriation of women by men for monetary gain. However, like gender itself drag is performative and allows queer men to express themselves in a feminine way through art. “A lot of drag queens get their names and character traits from pop culture, and the media loves to portray women as, to use Mary Cheney’s words, bitchy, catty, dumb, and slutty. Indeed, these are not great attributes for a person to embody, so when drag queens perform those characteristics while dressed and made up like a woman, it could be read as disrespectful or an insult to women” (Levengood, 2017). However, drag performance usually centers around emphasizing all types of women. Although the representations can be dramatic, drag is an art from at the end of the day and the majority of drag performers do not intend to appropriate women.

Medium

The art of drag has become a place of empowerment for queer people. It allows them to have a creative outlet and a source of emotional support since many queer people are not accepted by their biological family and local community. Many drag queens attribute even being alive to drag because it became a space for them to truly express themselves and be accepted by a loving community- not to appropriate femininity. Drag queens, more often than not, embrace femininity as an aspect of their performative gender which is why they are usually “he/him” outside of drag and “she/her” while in drag.

“There is still pressure for women to look and act a certain way, so I think drag characters meant to parody women should be approached with a level of sensitivity as well as creativity. There are a million of different ways to be viewed as a woman, so an art form inspired by women should reflect that.”

Levengood, 2017

The parody behind drag contributes to the performative aspects of the art and it allows the audience to laugh at themselves when they can relate to a character. It is an art that connects the audience directly to the performer, and provides a space for appreciation of femininity.

Paris is Burning

Drag is typically known for a way for someone who identifies as a male to over exaggerate feminine features to make them appear as a woman. The Houses host different balls for contestants to model, dance, or compete in voguing. The categorical structure of the ball hosts a variety of different ways the contestants dress and appear as what they believe fits the category best. The drag queens exaggerate certain features of the female body for certain categories and that is where their stereotype comes from. However, the categories do stray away from that. The categories help those who identify as male appear as whoever they want to be. Paris is Burning appears to be the stepping stone for other shows to get their start. The documentary shined light on queer, gay, African Americans, Latino, and transgenders and their importance in the future of drag.

References:

Ducros, V. (2019, December 9). Philosophy & Society – Drag Queens and Gender Performance. Medium. https://medium.com/@Valentin.Ducros/case-study-drag-queens-and-gender-performance-87eb52f09a2c.

Levengood, E. (2017, December 9). Is Drag Degrading to Women? Medium. https://medium.com/@leve0064/is-drag-degrading-to-women-c2eacaa5f065.

Parkerson, M. (n.d.). Paris Is Burning: The Fire This Time. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6832-paris-is-burning-the-fire-this-time

Staff, T. T. (n.d.). The Ballroom Glossary: A List of Terms You Should Know. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from https://www.truetpgh.com/news/the-ballroom-glossary-a-list-of-terms-you-should-know

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